SMMUSD HDQTRS — New state laws and a different approach to discipline have led to fewer student suspensions in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and across the state, according to a recent report from the California Department of Education.

The total number of suspensions at the high school level dropped to 369 in 2012-13 from 476 the school year prior. That’s a 22.4 percent drop from one year to the next. The total number of suspensions, in-school or out, across all schools in the state dropped 14.1 percent in that time.

A recent state law prohibits administrators from suspending students on certain first offenses, said Mark Kelly, director of Student Services for the SMMUSD.

“But I think the big reason is that we’ve really started a conversation with our site administrators looking at suspensions,” he said.

Kelly provides a monthly suspension report to all the administrators so they can monitor their progress.

“We’ve moved away from, ‘if it’s grounds for suspension, you should be suspended,'” he said. “I think school administrators are spending a lot of time really trying to figure out what happened.”

Board of Education Member Laurie Lieberman said she remembers discussing the issue during her first year on the board four years ago.

“I think it’s fair to say we’ve made considerable progress when it comes to lowering suspension rates and looking at alternative ways to deal with problems with students,” she said. “It’s understandable why suspensions occur. It appeared there was a kind of one-size-fits-all approach.”

One of the keys, Kelly said, is finding ways to improve student behavior without taking students out of school and causing them to get behind on their work.

“It can be a challenge to find the balance between maintaining a safe learning environment and giving young people the tools and opportunities they need to succeed,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a statement. “But we’re working with schools and districts throughout the state to do exactly that.”

Suspensions resulting from drug offenses and violence that caused an injury were significantly down at the high school level in the district. Most suspensions occur at the high school level.

Kelly said that the new approach to suspensions has not altered the school environment significantly.

“No one is noticing that there is a negative impact,” he said.

When a student acts out, Kelly said, administrators use it as an opportunity to figure out what the root of the issue is but, he said, that’s nothing new

“They’ve always done that,” Kelly said. “I think that administrators utilize that as an opportunity to figure out what’s causing the behavior. People think they are just suspending people. They are not.”

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